Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to put his relations with the United States and Russia on equal status in a new interview.
Erdogan declined to say if he trusts President Trump more than Russian President Vladimir Putin, an unusual demurral given Turkey’s membership in NATO. Erdogan has clashed with western leaders in recent years, as he implemented increasingly authoritarian changes to the Turkish political system and grew frustrated with U.S. plans to defeat the Islamic State in neighboring Syria.
“Don’t make us make such a choice,” Erdogan said during an interview with German weekly Die Zeit, when asked which leader he trusts more at the moment. “You have no right to do so. We are Turkey. We develop our relations to America as best we can, and we do the same with Russia.”
That’s a different tone than Russian and Turkish leaders took in 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russian jet operating over Syria, saying it repeatedly had violated Turkish airspace. “[The attack] is related to a stab in the back by the terrorists’ accomplices,” Russian President Vladlimir Putin said in response. “I can’t describe what has happened today in any other way.”
Turkish officials initially refused to apologize for the incident. “Understand this: Turkey is a country whose warnings should be taken seriously and listened to,” Serdar Kilic, Turkish ambassador to the United States, tweeted at the time. “Don’t test Turkey’s patience. Try to win its friendship.”
Erdogan did apologize eventually, shortly after a failed coup attempt put a new strain on Turkey’s relationship with the West. The Turkish leader demanded the extradition of a U.S.-backed cleric and accused nations that grant asylum to his opponents of harboring terrorists. Amid growing frustration with the U.S. strategy in Syria, Erdogan’s team engaged in secret talks with Russia without informing the United States, which led to the establishment of a peace forum hosted by the Russians.
“It takes 10 hours to get to America from here, and just two-and-a-half hours to Russia,” Erdogan said in the interview published Wednesday. “Our trade volume with the U.S. has dropped significantly. Every country in the world pursues its interests. As do we, of course. Our main supplier of energy is Russia.”
The Turkish leader maintained that he remains committed to NATO, however. “It is one thing to be disappointed in the West, and another thing to withdraw from NATO,” he said. “We aren’t planning such a thing. When discussing disappointments, it is first and foremost dissatisfaction with the [European Union] process. NATO has always been more honest with us than the EU has.”